I was busy yesterday, with a Klawchat and the Baseball Today podcast, the latter featuring my interview with Nate Silver, who denies being a witch. Those followed my ranking of the top 25 players under 25, which went up yesterday morning and requires an Insider membership.
I went into Django Unchained with somewhat limited expectations: I’m not a Tarantino fanboy by any stretch, and the two most frequent comments I’d heard about this film were that it was too long and too violent. It is violent, although nearly all of it is of the cartoonish variety, with just one scene that I would have cropped or eliminated. It’s long at 165 minutes, but aside from that one scene there’s virtually no fat to trim. It’s also clever, funny, sentimental almost to sappiness, righteously angry, and borderline absurd – a glorious alternate-history revenge fantasy that lacks the broad scope of Inglorious Basterds‘ vengeance but gives us the titular character as a stronger protagonist to exact retribtution on behalf of his race.
Django (a perpetually seething Jamie Foxx) begins the movie in chains, one of a group of recently-purchased slaves who are being led through a dark, dare-I-say mysterious forest by two white brothers, when they are miraculously intercepted by Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz, who scored a Best Supporting Actor nod for the role), a dentist-turned-bounty-hunter who, as it happens, is looking specifically for Django. His incredible fortune in finding this caravan without a GPS is never quite explained, nor is the fact that Django, who ends up joining Schultz in the bounty-hunting business, is a preternaturally accurate shot with virtually any sort of firearm.
The two hunt down a few targets before turning to the task of rescuing Django’s wife Brunhilda (Kerry Washington, who has two jobs, to look pretty and act scared, and does fairly well at both) from the unctuous plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio, chewing scenery like it’s a cud). Candie likes to buy and train slaves for “Mandingo fighting,” a human equivalent to cockfighting with no historical basis in fact but which is named as an allusion to the 1975 blaxploitation film Mandingo, which Tarantino has cited as a favorite of his. (He also honors another blaxploitation film with Brunhilda’s white surname, Von Schaft.) Django and Schultz claim to be slavers interested in buying a slave for use in Mandingo fighting, all as a pretense for seeing and buying Brunhilda on the cheap. Only the head house-slave, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson, playing this traitor to his race to the hilt), has any inkling that something is amiss.
Tarantino has figured out the way to tell a good slavery joke: Make the white people involved the joke’s targets. The various slaveowners and white lackeys are all odious in various ways, but Tarantino infuses them with comic weaknesses that he proceeds to exploit, most successfully in the absurd scene where a Klan raid breaks down because the white bags they are using as masks have eyeholes that don’t allow the riders to see properly. Quick yet florid dialogue that is obviously absurd yet can sound real enough to work for the audience is a difficult trick to pull off, yet Django‘s dialogue never broke that suspension of disbelief for me, and Tarantino’s script concludes with a flurry of self-referential lines that build on the humor of the first times the lines were delivered.
That same suspension of disbelief didn’t quite hold as well for the violence, largely because Tarantino appears to believe that human bodies are 98% blood, with perhaps some sort of light exoskeleton that keeps us from turning into landlocked jellyfish. Aside from one murder near the film’s end that evoked raucous laughter in the theater – I’m including myself in that – the extent of the splattering was a distraction, and appeared to be Tarantino just exuding in the fact that, yeah, he can take a tense shootout and make it so gross that it breaks the tension because the splashes are louder than the gunshots. The non-gun violence in the film was more disturbing and generally more effective at ratcheting up our hatred for the white folk Django will eventually target, because of the degree to which this violence, from torture to murder, shows the extent to which these whites view blacks as something less than human.
Tarantino’s last film made Nazis its targets, because, of course, who doesn’t love watching a Nazi get what’s coming to him? With slavery and racism at the heart of Django, however, Tarantino wanders into more dangerous emotional territory with the film’s heavy use of the n-word and with the depiction of some blacks as complicit in their own subjugation. The use of what is today a nasty racial epithet but was, in 1858-59, a common term for African-Americans, didn’t bother me because it is grounded in historical accuracy; I don’t want to see the term removed from Huckleberry Finn or the wandering Jew scrubbed from The Scarlet Pimpernel either, because they are monuments to the racial or ethnic attitudes of their times. But I imagine the role of Stephen as a black slave who, in return for privileges he’s been granted by a serious of owners, takes on the role of overseer of the house slaves, betraying his race and contributing to institutionalized racism, will make many viewers uncomfortable, even as it becomes clear that Stephen is doing so not from ignorance but from a clear strategy of self-preservation. Candie even delivers a speech in the film that argues that blacks didn’t fight back because of neurological inferiority, but we can dismiss that as the outdated racialist thinking of one of the film’s most hateful characters. Stephen is much harder to hand-wave away.
Waltz’ performance as Dr. Schultz could very easily win him his second Oscar as Best Supporting Actor, and his character has the most difficult development in the film, with subtle changes in his attitudes toward slavery from academic detachment to emotional involvement that lead to the film’s slam-bang finish. Foxx’s barely-contained rage gains articulacy through the film, but as strong as his performance was, it had a hint of one-note to it that might explain why he was overlooked in the Best Actor category. DiCaprio, normally such a strong actor in any sort of role, brings a bizarre flamboyancy to the role, starting with the overplayed deep-south accent and continuing with the vaguely incestuous flirting with his widowed sister, herself a cipher of a character despite a fair amount of screen time. Jackson worked with the most difficult material as Stephen, the Uncle Tom of the Candie estate (unironically referred to as “Candieland”), and he dominates most of his scenes between his stentorian delivery, impossible to hide even behind his character’s duplicitous yes-massah stammerings, and a glare so searing that it at one point reduces Brunhilda to tears. His appearance in the film’s second half transforms the movie from straight revenge fantasy to a somewhat more complex study of slavery through a conflict between African-American characters, one that doesn’t delivery any answers but provides a thought-provoking component to the film that would have been absent had we just been following Django around on a justified killing spree.
Revenge fantasies themselves, given the proper targets, can be superficially satisfying but will lack any kind of staying power beyond the closing credits and can leave the viewer feeling slightly empty the way he might after, say, wiping out a package of Oreos. I have little interest in a straight exploitation film, which I feared Django might be based on some early word-of-mouth, especially regarding the copious quantities of blood involved, but the film was both far funnier and more incisive than I anticipated. Tarantino could have stuck with cartoon violence and avoided any hints at the barbarism of slavery, but he took the hard way, with various scenes of brutal treatment, all presented without the sensationalism of the shootouts and made more effective through that contrast. The camera lingers on bodies spurting a quart of blood for every bullet, but when a slave is branded, the scene is truncated, and when a slave is torn apart by dogs, it’s shown so obliquely that the violence is largely implied – and those latter scenes are the ones that matter. Only the fight scene between the two “Mandingos” broke this rule, and deserved a major edit, but otherwise Django makes excellent use of its running length to entertain its audience in a thoughtful way.